Obama’s Durban II Boycott & the Perils of a “Post-Racial” Planet

March 2, 2009

At a time when racial conflict and discrimination are on the rise around the world, the Administration of the world’s first black U.S. president will not be attending the world’s most important conference on race and racism.

In what may signal a dangerous new, “post-racial” approach to global race relations, President Barack Obama’s Administration announced that it will not attend the second World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Geneva next April. According to this article in the New York Times, the Administration will boycott the conference to protest what it deems the unfair equation of Zionism with racism in the outcome documents of the first conference held in Durban, South Africa, and now the second conference, also known as “Durban II, as well .” Other concerns cited by Administration officials, some of whom recently attended preparatory meetings in Geneva,in their justification of the boycott include a proposal to place restrictions on the defamation of religions and any language calling for reparations for slavery. According to the Times article, one of the primary reasons for the Obama Administration’s decision was that “Israel and some American Jewish groups urged a boycott of the April conference, and several close American allies, including Canada.”

Praised by groups that lobbied against Durban II like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), whose leaders applauded the U.S. decision, “for refusing to participate in a process that would in any way brand Israel as a racist country,” the Obama Adminsitration’s boycott comes at the worst possible time for a planet facing rapidly increasing levels of recession-inspired racism, xenophobia and hatred.

Increasing numbers of experts report that most continents – Europe, Africa, Asia – are seeing exponential growth in hate crimes, ethnic tensions and other manifestations of the racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance, the kind on intolerance that will be discussed at the Durban II Conference. And in the Américas, the very palpable rise in racial tensions, hate crimes and other discrimination are well illustrated by events here in the “post-racial” United States: the NY Post Chimpanzee cartoon scandal, the U.S. visit (including a film screening in Congress) by Euro-racist Geert Wilders and the massive protests against the racial profiling, humiliation and other practices of Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, to name a few taking place in the United States. And these were only the events that the Obama Administration was silent about this past week.

The Obama Administration’s silence on both these racial incidents and on such fundamentally racial -and global-problems as the “drug war”, criminal justice reform and immigrant detention contrasts with the much-lauded statements on race by Attorney General Eric Holder. In statements made to coincide with the start of Black History Month, Holder called the U.S. “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussion of race .

Apparently, as indictaed by Obama Administration’s boycott of the Durban II conference, Mr. Holder’s statements are equally applicable to the global discussion of race. Consider, for example, Mr.Holder-and the Obama Administration’s- relative silence on reversing the abject failure and tragedy that is the global and domestic “war on drugs” (he’s actually in favor of pursuing it more intensely) and the unprecedented levels of racialized imprisonment it entails. In the face of the radicalization of racial hatred that is afoot throghout the world, both the Durban response and Holder’s Black History Month statements are beginning to sound like the oh so many hollow and jaded “Si Se Puede”‘s and other ethnic, racial “History Month”-like slogans designed to gain favor among former minorities, all the while pursuing right-of-center criminal justice policies that devastate these same communities.

And with its very dangerous boycott of Durban II in response to pressure from the very powerful Israel Lobby , the Obama Admnistration may be giving the green light to governments and other groups practicing their own brand of racial discrimination, promoting hatred and other forms of discrimination. While much of the media is discussing the U.S. boycott, most of these reports neglect to the mention the near universal condemnation of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, which United Nations General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto likened to apartheid last November:

“More than twenty years ago we in the United Nations took the lead from civil society when we agreed that sanctions were required to provide a non-violent means of pressuring South Africa. Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel.”

Rather than join the rest of the world in Durban and in condemning the killing and discrimination on the part of the Israeli and other governments-including our own-, Obama’s boycott reflects his choice to pursue the more dangerous path to dealing with race, racism and discrimination: symbolism at the expense of real changes to very devastating policies. Such are the perils of our increasingly post-racial presidency in a racially-troubled world.

Political choices like the Durban decision or the blind eye turned to the indiscriminate killing of and discrimination against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank make one wonder if the Obama Administration has also chosen to become the black face of empire.

13 Responses to “Obama’s Durban II Boycott & the Perils of a “Post-Racial” Planet”

  1. James Says:

    I’m sorry, but how does the Obama administration’s decision not to attend the Durban review conference amount to “a dangerous new, “post-racial” approach to global race relations”?

    This is hardly a new position. The U.S. had boycotted the Durban conference and all follow-up meetings before Obama became president, so this is simply a continuation of previous policy in a slightly more flexible form.

    And what is “post-racial” about the Obama administration’s decision, given that U.S. objections are the same under Obama as they were under Bush?



  2. I challenge the assertion that the U.S. boycott Durban II and the claim that the current U.S. government taking a “blind-eye” to Palestinian civilian casualties represent the litmus test for the Obama Administration policies on or commitment to civil rights or equal opportunity to date, mainly because it is not born by the facts. First, I think that the diplomatic and policy actions and positions taken by the brief Obama Administration need to be considered in their entirety, including the initial actions being taken by Attorney General Holder at the Department of Justice, other federal agencies, and legislation already signed into law by President Obama related to discrimination and health rights of children of color. Second, I think a closer examination of the actions to date in Middle East policy and specifically the Palestinian situation require deeper examination before making the claim that the U.S. is taking a “blind eye” to Palestinian casualties, because I believe such an examination would reveal that this assertion is not supported by the facts of the nascent diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to date. Thirdly, I really do not believe that this U.N. conference is really more than a symbolic and network activity, as the heavy lifting on these issues is ultimately conducted by individual states and civil society organizations at the national and international level. Finally, I think that the phrase in your commentary, “make one wonder if the Obama Administration has also chosen to become the black face of empire” juxtaposes or presents a term that itself is ripe with symbolic racialized meaning in U.S. popular culture, “black face.” If you intentionally and knowingly employed this term to suggest that President Obama is in essence a white man with a painted black face, then your very own commentary makes use of the type of language that will be decried at the Durban II meeting. Beyond the very unfortunate use of this terminology, in my view, there is simply no empirical evidence to date that President Obama or his administration is currently acting in a way to suggest that it is projecting a new imperial agenda. This is simply absurd, misleading, and groundless.

    • robvato Says:

      Sorry to offend your sensibilities, Andres. Am glad to respond, especially because you approach this more respectfully than those who try to attack me with the infantile and infantilizing discourse that equates criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism targeting Jews. The purpose of my piece was to point out the danger of Obama’s moves and silence around race and racism in the case of both the Durban (not “Durbin”, which refers to the Obama ally) decision and the bombing of civilians in Palestine.

      That said, the record of the Obama Administration with regard to condemning the slaughter of children, women, elderly people and other Palestinian innocents is indubitable: silence. His Administration’s approach -equating the deaths of a handful of people with the systematic killing (ie; white phosphorous use condemned by Human Rights Watch and other very credible institutions, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/01/10/israel-stop-unlawful-use-white-phosphorus-gaza) almost a thousand mostly civilians does not rise beyond the level of what Mr. Holder called cowardice; and it inspires little “hope” and surely signifies little “change”. And as far “facts,” which by the way you yourself do not provide any beyond generalizations, the point of my piece is to sound the alert about the dangerous political and racial path that Obama’s actions Durban II and the still fresh massacre in Palestine. So, the Obama Administration has, in fact, “turned a blind eye” to what happened in Palestine just before he was elected. Please provide a copy any condemnation whose stridency matches the degree of mass murder most of the world -and most people in the U.S.(see http://maxblumenthal.com/2009/01/why-arent-more-americans-dancing-to-israels-tune/) -condemned.

      I report and write regularly about the criminal justice and immigrant detention systems, two of the primary symbols of racial injustice in the United States. On both counts, Obama and Holder have been either silent or tepid, at best. We may simply have different criterios, Andres, and that makes for good political discussion. For me, talk of “Si Se Puede” in campaigns smells rancid and talk of “cowards” on race for Black History Month is cheap; Talk on fundamentally altering the system of criminal justice and talk of dismantling the militarized immigration bureaucracy aren’t.

      And for you to reduce to reduce the U.N. Durban II conference to being nothing more than a “symbolic and network activity” seems, quite frankly, pretty unbecoming for one who teaches at my former alma mater, Berkeley. Firstly, because what is race if not a symbolic system consumed and produced by the symbol-using animals that we are? Secondly, if Durban is so nada in the global scheme of things, why has the Israel lobby (as described and documented by Mearsheimer and Walt) spent so much of its time in the media and pr and political worlds pressuring the Obama Administration about something you believe has the ontological status & political value of a unicorn? And you seem to know little about the either the Durban process or its the effect, for example,on the explosion of Afro-Latino consciousness in the Americas:


      Speaking of which, you also sound like you don’t understand that , when I use the phrase, “the black face of empire”, I am referring to the deployment
      of race to push non-racial projects, like the imperial project of the United States. You might want to go talk to the folks who run journals of progressive African American thought like Black Commentator or Black Agenda Report why they publish my stuff regularly or why they don’t find the phrase “black face of empire” as offensive as you seem to.

      Lastly, your last statement-“there is no empirical evidence to date that President Obama or his administration is currently acting in a way to suggest that its is projecting a new imperial agenda” provides what I believe is the root and foundation of our definite differences. You sound as if you believe that the United States stopped being an empire when Barack Obama was elected. If you don’t believe this or that his main priority as President is first and foremost to salvage the politico-military-and economic system of global domination this country still centers, then we simply disagree. Whichever the case, thanks for engaging.



  3. bill Says:

    Yes Robert, you have portrayed classic anti-Semitism;

    You state that numbers of experts report that most continents – Europe, Africa, Asia – are seeing exponential growth in hate crimes, ethnic tensions and other manifestations of the racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.”

    In reality Synagagues are being attacked around the world. Why do you not condemn the rise in anti-Semitism. in Caracas, a gernade was thrown in a Jewish community center and a Synagague was attacked. All over the world violence against Jews has been hapening and you have stayed silent.

    Your piece you write is full of code words against Jews.

    Finally, you attack the Anti Defimation League, but you don’t acknowledge the work they have done for helping Mexican Immigrants?

    • robvato Says:

      I do condemn anti-Semitism. I thought that, by pointing out the rise in hatred and racial violence in all its forms throughout the world, I was covering my bases. You sound like you think that the failure to single out as exceptional the attacks on Jews from attacks against the rest of the 6 billion souls in this tense world is tantamount to anti-Semitism; I find that as offensive as the infantile and infantilizing idea that criticism of the state of Israel is concomitant with anti-Semitism. Governments are separate from people, Bill. And, BTW, I am grateful to Jewish friends who’ve both provided leadership with their condemnations of the bloody wrongs of the government of Israel while also providing us with a way to avoid falling into those twisted traps that try to shut down political discussion. The ADL has proven itself to be many things, one of which is untrustworthy, as when 700 pages of documents from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office told us in the 1990’s us that the ADL spied on groups opposed to U.S.policy in Israel(http://www.counterpunch.org/adlspying2.html). But then you probably think that the District Attorney, the L.A. Times, S.F. Chronicle and others reporting on the ADL are also anti-Semitic, right? You might consider going to blogs about Disneyworld and the Disney Channel with such infantile and cartoonish smear tactics. And my name is ROBERTO, not the assimilationist racial code word you used, “Robert.” R

  4. Dear Roberto, My key point regarding Durban II article is that, at worst, the Obama Administration is sending mixed messages about the Middle East, immigration enforcement, civil rights, and international relations, and I believe that observers need more time to reach sweeping conclusions about the meaning or direction of its policies. Sensibilities aside, I contend that the concluding statement overreaches the reality and is premature. My sensibilities were not offended, as I was simply asking whether the “black face of empire” line is deliberately referring to ”black face” as in “blackface” to suggest that the decisions of the President himself reflected that he was a white man with a superficial black appearance, such as in “blackface,” or worse acting to please or advance the interests of “white” imperial power. Even without an explicit reference “blackface”, this sentence could be inferred to have the same meaning. (And I surely would not argue that Empire no longer exists because Obama was elected U.S. President.) I am glad that editorial boards of Black Commentator and Black Agenda Report have found no problems with this terminology, but I remain concerned from both analytical and political perspectives I’ve developed from the civil rights, immigrant rights, international solidarity, and public policy analysis groups where I have worked for many decades. I did not misspell Durban at this site. I suggest that we revisit the warning in this article in six months to see which of us will be closer to the truth. I’ll be glad to share with you the evidence and “facts” I am using for my conclusions directly by email, and I’ll consider a complement the comment that my perspective is unbecoming of Berkeley because this campus can be a pretty racist, unequal, and discriminatory place. In solidarity, Andrés

    • Carol G. Says:


      Did you mean to write “compliment,” instead of “complement?” Two different meanings. 🙂


  5. bill Says:


    let’s not forget that Mr. Lovato was silet about this as he denounced the rising tide of hatred…..

    • robvato Says:

      I was silent about most of the hundreds of thousands of race-based hate crimes, killings and other acts of discrimination around the world. Why do you insist that those against people of Jewish descent merit some exceptional treatment and then proceed to equate those who do not do as you do are somehow anti-Semitic. I respond to you because I want to highlight for our readers what kind of shadowy people are cheapening the important cause of combating anti-Semitism. I just realizedy you don’t even have the courageto put your real name or email to your comments and will therefore case from accepting or responding to anonymous cowards. R

  6. […] Roberto Lovato: Rather than join the rest of the world in Durban and in condemning the killing and discrimination on the part of the Israeli and other governments-including our own-, Obama’s boycott reflects his choice to pursue the more dangerous path to dealing with race, racism and discrimination: symbolism at the expense of real changes to very devastating policies. Such are the perils of our increasingly post-racial presidency in a racially-troubled world. […]

  7. I totally agree with James the first poster..sorry Roberto but it just doesnt make much sense to me is all..none of it does.

  8. sword Says:

    I never understood the United States relationship with Israel. I’m not for or against this relationship because I don’t understand, but, I think a thorough read of the link you posted on the Israeli Lobby may help. Thanks.

  9. jermaine Says:

    The relationship between these two are business more than anything just like many of the other countries.

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